This past March, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) made history with a march on Mexico City from its jungle stronghold in the poor southern state of Chiapas, demanding acceptance of its peace plan, the San Andrés Accords [see Al Giordano, "Zapatistas on the March," April 9]. But within six weeks, the accords–constitutional amendments recognizing the autonomy of Mexico's indigenous peoples–were gutted by federal legislators, causing the rebels once again to break off dialogue. At the heart of the debate over the plan is the question of who will control the fate of the Chiapas rainforest, the Selva Lacandona–where real indigenous autonomy has been in place ever since the 1994 Zapatista uprising.
The UN-recognized Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve holds the Selva's last, threatened heart of virgin forest. Despite President Vicente Fox's pledges to withdraw troops from Zapatista territory, many military positions remain in the Selva. Barred by the cease-fire from attacking the Zapatistas, the troops are ostensibly policing Montes Azules against drug traffickers and protecting it from deforestation. But the Selva's Maya inhabitants, the Zapatista base communities, say that–in defiance of both UN guidelines and the San Andrés principles–Montes Azules is not being protected for the resident indigenous peoples but for transnational biotech corporations that hope to profit from the region's genetic wealth.
In 1998 the California firm Diversa signed a three-year "bio-prospecting" deal with the Mexican government. Diversa, which has a similar deal with the US government for Yellowstone National Park, is granted access to Mexico's biodiversity in exchange for $5,000 to train and equip personnel from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, who are to collect the samples; $50 per sample; and royalties of between 0.3 and 0.5 percent of net sales on products derived from them. In contrast, Yellowstone National Park got $15,000 of equipment, royalties of from 0.5 to 10 percent–and $100,000.
The terms of both deals had been secret. Environmental groups went to US federal court to try to get the Yellowstone terms released–but they were eventually reported in the Salt Lake Tribune. The terms of the Mexican deal were leaked to the daily La Jornada, which lambasted them as "bio-genetic plunder."
The University of Georgia, the Britain-based company Molecular Nature Ltd. and El Colegio de la Frontera Sur have launched a similar five-year project. This one, titled Drug Discovery and Biodiversity Among the Maya of Mexico, specifically targets Chiapas. Tapping the vast reservoir of Maya herblore, the program will receive $2.5 million from the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG), a consortium of US government agencies, including the National Science Foundation and the Department of Agriculture. The Chiapas Council of Traditional Indigenous Midwives and Healers (COMPITCH) is urging Indians not to cooperate with the researchers, charging that "the pact was developed without notifying or informing indigenous communities and organizations." The US program has developed its own partnership with local Indian communities, called ICBG-Maya. Director Brent Berlin of the University of Georgia told the Associated Press that the project has received the consent of nearly fifty communities and forged profit-sharing deals with them. But Berlin said he warned them that financial windfalls were a long shot.